Big Ten Title Hopes Fading Fast

With Sunday’s 79-70 loss at the hands of the Wolverines, Michigan State is virtually eliminated from one seed contention for the tournament. The Spartans dropped five spots to No. 18 in both polls this week while Michigan moved up four places to No. 16. With only three games remaining in the season, MSU must focus on their own play, not what everyone is doing around them.

In Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology, he has the Spartans down to a three seed. With only three games left in the regular season, MSU needs to focus on winning out for any chance at a Big Ten regular season title. The Spartans are one game back in the loss column from Michigan, who has a much easier end to the regular season.

Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana finish out U-M’s season, who have RPI’s of 122, 47, 83 and 96 respectively. This means that Minnesota is the only team out of the four expected to make the March tournament. Michigan is playing its best basketball of the season and is showing no signs of slowing down.

Meanwhile, MSU’s remaining schedule of Illinois, Iowa and Ohio State have RPI’s of 83, 33 and 17 respectively. This does not bode well for MSU’s chances at a comeback.

MSU beat the Illini in Champaign, Ill. 78-62 in January, beat Iowa on the road 71-69 in overtime and almost collapsed at home to Ohio State, eventually winning by four in overtime. Normally, the experts would say that the Illinois game on Saturday is going to be a cakewalk for the Spartans, but Nebraska proved last Sunday that there are no cakewalks in the Big Ten.

The good news for Tom Izzo is that Branden Dawson is expected to return to action against Illinois for the first time in nine games. The big question is how long will it take him to return to form. Will he jell with his teammates rights away like Adreian Payne? Or will the recovery come slower, as it is with Keith Appling? Dawson leads the team in rebounds and most of the time is the most athletic player on the court.

Earlier in the year, I wrote an article on how Dawson could be the team’s X-factor if they wanted any shot at a title. Later, I wrote another article about how he has been disappointing this year. In retrospect, the latter article seems a little shortsighted. The saying “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” applies perfectly here, and so does this song. He filled a role that no one on the team can quite like him. He makes big plays when he wants to and out-rebounds guys five inches taller than him.

Even though Dawson is a stonemason outside of 10 feet, he is a great complement to Payne, who can draw defenses away from the post and free up Dawson. It is basically like having a more skilled Matt Costello in the game.

Just because one player is back does not guarantee that MSU will suddenly transform into the best team in the nation. The addition of a “new” player to the rotation could just throw a wrench into things and State could drop two out of their final three games. Or it could be like a shot of adrenaline into the team’s collective arm and fuel a Big Ten Tournament title run.

As of right now, no one knows what is going to happen, but it should be fun regardless.

Blake Froling is the co-host of Impact Izzone for Impact Sports.

Photo: David Defever/Impact Sports